'Everyone deserves something': provincially-funded funerals on the rise

Each year, the province spends millions of dollars providing dignified burials to those who can't afford it.

Each year, the province spends millions of dollars providing dignified burials to those can't afford it

The province spends millions of dollars every year to give those who can't afford a funeral service, a dignified sendoff. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Under a green tent at the Surrey Centre Cemetery, sit four empty chairs.

"We set up a full service just in case a relative or loved one comes by," said groundskeeper Daniel Sward.

Last Wednesday morning, no one showed up for a burial. They rarely do in such cases.

Sward begins to bury the ashes of Ricky G. McKersie. All he knows of the man is his name and that he was 60 when he died in March 2016.

"You take care. Rest peacefully, sir," he whispers, as he lowers the urn into the square-shaped hole at the cemetery grounds.

Groundskeeper Daniel Sward says a few words in the absence of family and loved ones. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

"I feel like everyone deserves something. Maybe a few words, that's the least I can do," said Sward.

It makes me feel better, hopefully he sees that somewhere."

McKersie's burial last week was one of 2,403 funerals the province paid for in 2016 because no one else could or would. Publicly-paid burials were once referred to as pauper's funerals.

During the 2016-2017 fiscal year, B.C. spent more than $5 million on these burials, and their numbers are rising. So far this year, the province has paid for 2,325 such burials.

By contrast, in 2013, the province paid for 1,911 burials, according to figures from the ministry of social development and poverty reduction.

The Surrey Centre Cemetery always put outs four chairs in case someone shows up to the service, though they rarely do. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

The province pays for a burial if a deceased had no estate, no next of kin, or if no one was willing or able to pay. But it doesn't keep records on the specific reasons why the individual burial is paid by the province.

It's not known why the number of publicly paid burials has risen. But Marion Allaart, executive director of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) said the rising death toll from opioid overdoses may play a role.

So far in 2017, 1,100 peopled died from overdoses in B.C., a number that surpasses the 981 deaths in 2016. 

In the 5.6-hectare Surrey Centre Cemetery, hundreds were buried in services paid by the province. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Allaart said members of the non-profit group have been buried by the province, but she doesn't know how many.

Anna Christian, coordinator of Surrey's cemetery services, said she feels for those who die alone.

"Unfortunately, people go down a different path sometimes. We're not here to judge, we're just here to take care of them," said Christian.

The cemetery has roughly 350 unmarked graves of people whose burials were paid by the province. Christian estimated 80 per cent of provincially-paid burials occur at the Surrey Centre Cemetery. 

The coordinator for Surrey's cemetery services, Anna Christian, doesn't speculate on why people can't afford to pay for their funerals. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

"It's heartbreaking," she said.

"Because I always envisioned, if that was my loved one, you would be able to put a flower or hand on their casket," she said. 

When she started her job as cemetery coordinator in Surrey four years ago, she noticed that those buried by the ministry don't get a headstone. Their graves were unmarked.

"If you're walking through the cemetery, there is something so powerful about looking at somebody's name, and their birth date and the date they died, and that dash in the middle is their whole life," she said.

"These people are in our community and they deserve to have a plaque on their grave."

The province doesn't pay for headstones, so Christian partnered with a headstone maker to ensure everyone eventually gets one. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

In 2014, she partnered with local headstone maker, Ves Vukovic to provide grave markers.

The two met after he came looking for a friend's grave at the 5.6-hectare cemetery, but was unable to find it because his friend was buried by the ministry and had no headstone.

Vukovic decided to make a headstone for his friend and others in return for a tax credit.

"I felt really bad for those people who couldn't afford monuments after their life," said Vukovic.

The first year, Christian asked him to make 50 headstones for the graves at the Surrey cemetery, but the number multiplied over the years as the number of ministry-funded burials rose.

Now they're trying to catch up with the demand.

VANDU board member Hugh Lampkin gestures toward a collection of photos of people who have recently died in the Downtown Eastside, interspersed with other notices at VANDU's office. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)